The trees, together with the plants that grow under them and the water that cycles around them, are the basis for the communities in the White Mountains of Arizona. The people who come to visit and recreate in the trees, the cattle that harvest the forage under them, the people who work in the woods to harvest them, and the wood mills which process them were the tools that helped to create our rural communities’ economy and a healthy forest for the first 70 years of Arizona’s statehood. Then something changed.
Our forests are the greatest fiber-producing areas in our state. They produce wood and plant fibers in such abundance that for 70 years, it took approximately 25 saw mills and 90,000 head of livestock to barely keep up with its annual production. For example: the United States Forest Service (USFS) estimated that from 1986 to 2000, Arizona’s forests annually produced 367 million board feet of saw timber. That’s a total of 5.5 billion board feet of saw timber from the years 1986 to 2000. This number does not reflect the plant fibers and other small woody species growth in our forests— just the saw timber.
What a gift. Five-and-one-half billion board feet of trees to give beauty and respite to the White Mountains’ visitors, fuel our economies, build our communities, and provide jobs in northeastern Arizona. But since the early 1980s, we have been squandering this gift. How might you ask? Well—in the 1980s, radical environmental groups began to engage in lawsuits, with endless appeals and petitions to stop wood and forage harvesting projects in our forests. They became very adept at designating habitat to protect a fish, a frog or an owl in a fashion that made cutting trees or grazing cows under them a crime and a forbidden activity.
They were successful. Their maneuvering caused every “logline” saw mill around our forests to close. Their successful manipulations of “scientific footnotes” made the cow look like an evil creature that ate fish, frogs and owls. It got to the point that in the years 1996, 1997 and 1998, we harvested nearly zero board feet of saw timber from our forests and ever since, we have only been harvesting a very small amount. It has gotten so bad that USFS estimated that over 6 billion board feet of timber has been allowed to build up in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest. Each and every year, that number grows by approximately 367 million board feet. This is the approximate equivalent of 240 million gallons of propane sitting in our forest—and growing every year. Is there any question why we are having catastrophic fires in our forest?
The worst part is—it is not over. Our forests are growing today and these lawsuits and appeals have driven off our wood harvesting economy. The infrastructure of small and large diameter wood mills is gone. There are only a couple of small ones left. The range and animal science expertise that used to oversee the day-to-day management of livestock production to harvest the forage that grows daily in our forests has shrunk because many of those ranch families found less dangerous and uncertain areas to produce food in. We are at a breaking point where either we continue to talk about the forest, study the forest, and collaborate about the harvest of small diameter trees—or we act. We act by inviting back investment and expertise in the form of wood mills and ranch families. We act by inviting back those “forest engineers” who worked in the woods and understand how to harvest trees and make valuable products for mankind.
It is time to act, and everyone should be measured by their actions. Are they stepping aside and demanding fuel reduction and wood harvest activities in our forest? Or are they calling for more small diameter collaboration and talk about what a fish, frog or owl needs?
One thing for sure, most of this generation’s fish, frogs and owls didn’t survive the Wallow Fire and its aftermath. Neither did 500,000 acres of pricelessly beautiful trees. We need to ask ourselves—would they have survived a cow or a chainsaw? My lifelong experience tells me yes. — Douglas E. Brown [Douglas E. Brown is an attorney and recent evacuee from Eagar, AZ. He was born and raised in northeastern Arizona. His great-grandfather operated a sawmill and homesteaded in the White Mountains and his family continues to produce beef in the area.]